A few days ago, I suggested that misfits (meaning clever, unfocussed people who don’t find a secure place in society) often develop into pretend entrepreneurs in the U.S., and cited a few examples of people I know in this "line of work." Now to the European version, the unemployed intellectual. Where do they come from?
Here’s my theory. You’re a young Frenchman, somewhat like Mr. Dhelft, who we met a few days ago. You dawdle leisurely through university, studying whatever catches your fancy: art history, Chinese calligraphy, recorder, or (as Mr. Dhelft, and thousands like him, did) sociology. There’s no rush — you’re living at home or in subsidized student housing, there are minimal or no tuition fees, and few fixed course requirements at European universities. Of course, you take routine vacations from this grueling endeavor. Not package vacations to crowded beaches, interesting vacations: by backpack through the Andes, by bus through North India, or perhaps the surprise vacation: you show up at the airport and buy the next standby ticket, no matter where it takes you.
Don’t forget your Erasmus year! This is the European "Erasmus" student-exchange program, studying at a university in another EU country. Your Erasmus year will be little more than a blur of cigarette smoke, recreational drugs, and fumbling sex in rickety IKEA beds (as seen in Cedric Klapisch’s affectionate comedy L’Auberge Espagnole). European universities make few demands on their own students, much less transfer students from foreign countries.
Indeed, before you join the Erasmus program, nobody (apparently) will even check whether you understand your host country’s language! The students in the L’Auberge Espagnole all came to trendy Barcelona to study for a year, and found out only when they arrived that the local university held course in incomprehensible Catalan, not I-can-sort-of-understand-it Spanish. There is only thing less enticing than sitting next to 200 other students in uncomfortable wooden chairs in a gigantic, stuffy lecture-hall while a professor monotonically reads sections of his latest article into a microphone. That is sitting there listening to the professor droning on in a language you don’t understand. Much better to head to the nearest cafe, get some sun, and pick up a local hottie with your adorable phrasebook Finnish. And don’t forget, learning how to sit around in a cafe is an important life skill. You will need it later.
Alas, university must end one day. Usually when you’re in your late 20s (this is a serious problem for European economies, but not for you!). There won’t be any pompous graduation ceremonies like at American universities, because everybody graduates at different times in Europe. One day,you’ll just suddenly realize you’ve got enough credits to apply for your degree. You’ll then go to some university office, and some bored, chain-smoking bureacrat will push your college degree through a greasy plexiglas barrier. Ready or not, you’re in the real world.
You’re likely to have no job experience outside a few internships. If you’ve worked really hard, you may have written a good paper, perhaps even a doctoral thesis, on some theme. A cultural or social theme, needless to say. Let’s say The Influence of Norse Myth on Conceptions of the Heroic in Sturm und Drang Drama. No, make that The Influence of Norse Myth on Conceptions of the Heroic in Early Sturm und Drang Drama. Much better!
You then sort of begin trying to find a job. Like Mr. Dhelft, you certainly don’t go nuts. A few resumes per month is probably all you’re going to be able to manage. You’re very picky: you’re not interested in business (nor is it in you, to be fair). There’s not much time pressure, because a network of family and government subsidies will ensure your standard of living doesn’t plummet.
Unlike many American students, you won’t feel pressure to take a well-paying job you don’t like. Your education was free and your cultural tradition disapproves of personal debt. All you need is enough to live on and take a few vacations. What’s more important than the money is the prestige and having cool, interesting colleagues. You don’t need to actually look for jobs that require knowledge of Sturm und Drang drama, although you might luck into one. Much more important is the fact that your wrote your paper on Sturm und Drang drama. That fact is your secret handshake that proves to other "cultural" or "social" people that you’re one of us.
If you’re lucky, you’ll actually find a job: assistant curator for a small museum dedicated to a local 19th-century playwright, "social analyst" for a non-profit organization that studies integration difficulties among local Roma, part-time radio journalist and part-time non-profit event promoter ("Yes, I printed the flyers for Icelandic (Re)-visions — A Conference on the Exploration of Nordic Femininity in the Independent Icelandic Cinema of the 1960s").
But I don’t really want to address the lucky ones here — the ones who finished their college degree (eventually) and found a more-or-less real job (eventually). This post is about the misfits. Take an acquaintance of mine named Max. He hung around at the local university for 8 years, working on his doctoral dissertation ("diss"). His relationship with his professor wasn’t very close, and he kept changing the topic of his dissertation, and he saw no reason to stop taking long vacations, and his French classes took research time away from the diss, and the thousand little tasks his professor asked of him took time away from the diss, and female problems took time away from the diss, and, and… Eventually, his professor had to gently but crisply inform him that there was no longer a place for him at the university, and that he would have to finish his diss within a year. He couldn’t.
Now, in his late 30s, he’s joined the tens of thousands of European misfit-intellectuals. You see these people in cafes everywhere. Quite often, they have a history like Max’s: highly intelligent, did reasonably well at university, chose a demanding topic for their diss, and somehow didn’t quite finish it. Or did finish it, but simply could not find a job in Europe’s youth-unfriendly labor markets. They survive on tiny little bits of money: state unemployment benefits, parental subsidies, a generous partner, occasional paid temporary work, tiny little fees for small articles in the local newspaper, etc.
These folks read the most intellectual newspaper available, and ambitious books on contemporary philosophy or social problems. They prefer meditative auteur films to blockbusters. They have complex political opinions. They are often bald, and wear turtlenecks and aggressive glasses. They are likely to be noodling around on a short story or an essay of some sort. They’re every inch the intellectual — they’re just not recognized by society as such. They have no office in a publishing house, they don’t go to any conferences, nobody but their friends is interested in their opinion — and sometimes not even their friends. There have been novels written about these marginally-employed intellectuals, among them Eckhard Henscheid’s funny Die Vollidioten (G) ("The Morons").
Please don’t imagine that I disapprove of these people. Some of my best friends fall into this category. I sort of do myself. I like these people as much as I like people with regular careers. In fact, I like them more than I like people with regular careers, because people with regular careers make me slightly nervous. Unemployed intellectuals fulfill many important roles in society. They create superb documentaries and radio features, when you give them the chance. They buy and write odd magazines, ensuring that these odd magazines are there for us all to read. And finally, at their best, they are like living symbols of a society that still values time more than money, depth more than irony, and understanding more than achievement. Next time you see one in a cafe, buy him a drink!